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Releasing Side Projects

July 15, 2018

It feels interesting to send side projects out into the wild. First of all, you have to recognize if you’re solving a need or just making something neat. Solving a need means you need to find a market. Making something neat still needs a market, but for a different reason.

At the end of the day, it’s a vulnerable thing that you need to enter with an open mind. Too many people release things that need iteration, and stubbornly refuse to update. Take Filezilla’s inability to hotfix, or Habitica’s mobile app limitations.

Releasing side projects can be rough, so you have to define to yourself why you’re doing it. Maybe even before you begin, because it will affect your outcome.

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Goals of Education Technology

July 9, 2018

Check out this great list of goals for education technology. Reviewing this list is a reminder of what we’re building for:

  • Improving mastery of academic skills
  • Developing skills to promote lifelong learning
  • Increasing family engagement
  • Planning for future education opportunities
  • Designing effective assessments
  • Improving educator professional development and productivity
  • Making learning accessible to all students
  • Closing opportunity and achievement gaps

The world is full of children who don’t have access to good education because of poverty or other causes. Luckily, technology provides us with an opportunity to reach so many more people than before. Parents need help teaching their kids, and kids need help learning. Teachers need help because they’re overwhelmed and underpaid.

Sometimes, the idea of building something to help people can seem daunting. The world is a tough place, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. It’s our job as innovators to think our way around these problems.

Today’s children won’t become tomorrow’s global leaders on their own!

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Why I Cancelled Evernote

February 3, 2017

Evernote is a note service that allows synchronization across devices. The concept is incredibly useful – edit the same note from many different places. After 2 years of using Evernote, however, I’ve cancelled my subscription.

There are a number of reasons that users were pushed away from Evernote, including a privacy policy SNAFU. The lessons learned from their lack of communication or proper wording are worthy of examination. My gripe arose when Evernote made a change to their subscription plans. Free users, once able to synchronize notes across unlimited devices, were limited to 2. In doing so, they made an important assumption: synchronizing notes across devices is what users will pay for. Free users received a downgrade, and asked to pay for what was taken away.

Finding a profitable model can mean losing users.

In building startups of my own, I’ve come across the problem Evernote undoubtedly faced. Users will use a free version, but how can you get them to pay? Tech companies have a lot of expenses: developers, servers, and more.

With that in mind, creating a payment model can be difficult. A freemium product needs to do two things, draw in and upgrade users. The free offer needs to be tantalizing, and the paid version needs to provide enough value to call for a paid upgrade. In my personal experience, their choice of what to charge for is not something I’m interested in. On top of that, their limitations to the free plan eliminated what I liked about the platform.

The meaning behind big decisions

What this shows is their trend away from customer-centric to a business focussed on revenue. Perhaps they were unsustainable, or perhaps they were pushed by a stakeholder. To be clear, this isn’t my gripe. What I’m saying is that while there are many things Evernote could have charged for, they are charging for something I would not pay for.

Evernote has the right to do this, and we have the right to switch services.

Evernote is well within its right to change its plans. There’s no faulting them for that. But that doesn’t mean us users have to like it! To be clear, I don’t feel entitled to Evernote’s services. However, if they expect me not to switch to a different platform, they should entice me to pay by adding value to the paid version, not taking value away from the free.

Many people are very passionate about the services they use – see the Cult of Mac, for instance. For now, I’ll be sticking with Microsoft OneDrive. The OSX app still has a bug or two, but it syncs across all my devices, has absolutely everything I need, and runs smoothly. Running smoothly is, incidentally, another thing Evernote is struggling with.

Love Evernote? Hate it? I’d love to hear your feedback!


Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll dig into a business topic – maybe user testing?
Give me a shout on twitter!

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5 Things that Make Cooperative Games Fun

January 26, 2017

Recently, my roommate and I played through one of my favourite cooperative games of all time, Little Big Planet. While playing, we were wondering – what makes it such a strong multiplayer game? While there are a number of fun gameplay elements, the game is more fun with others than alone.

We did some brainstorming and came up with 5 elements that make cooperative games fun.

The Controls are Easy to Learn, but Hard to Master

When you’re sitting around ready to play, you want to get right into the action. Maybe that’s why first-person shooters are so popular among groups! A unique elements might make a shooter stand out, but you know the core of what you’ll be doing; running and shooting. Little Big Planet is a great example of this. There are basically only three things you can do; run, jump, and hold on to things.

These games are all easy to learn. But, as the difficulty increases, you end up working as a team to help each other and get better together, making for a shared experience!

Teamwork is Necessary for the Big Rewards

While an emphasis on teamwork is nice, working together for progression’s sake doesn’t influence behaviour. There are stronger ways to approach this. For instance, a game might allow players to struggle through individually, but only really succeed if they work together.

Whether fighting enemies or solving puzzles, working with a friend is a rewarding experience that will allow you to share in success. Solving a puzzle alone can be fun, but who are you going to share with? A good cooperative game should egg players on to the big rewards by getting them to work together.

Encouragement is Small, yet Frequent

If you’re playing a game with a friend and she starts to get bored, you’ll want to stop as well. That’s why it’s beneficial to add frequent encouragement, instead of one large carrot at the end of a stick. Keeping the players focussed on small, numerous goals works just like real life. Staying motivated requires constant focus and small wins. You don’t start a project and only give your team compliments when you reach the end! Cooperative work environments require positive feedback all the time, and a cooperative game is no different.

For a game-based example, check out how often players get points in Little Big Planet 2!

Cooperative Games Don’t Need to Be Very Competitive

Competition is healthy, especially for children. So there’s no reason it should be kept out of cooperative games – as long as it doesn’t take over the focus! There’s no reason to rely on competition to drive behaviour. There is a powerful UX lesson here – people like to be seen as playing in a well-populated world, but don’t like to always be losing!

There are actually a lot of UI/UX lessons that can be taken from good games. But one thing about games that can’t always be applied to products is this last point:

Playing With Another Person is Fun!

While the days of playing outside may have changed, we’re still social creatures who like to play together! Sitting around with my roommate eating snacks was good, clean fun.

I hope you enjoyed this brainstorm of what makes cooperative games enjoyable. There are a ton of similarities between this list and good UI/UX in products, but that’s a topic for another post. 🙂


Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll dig into a service I loved but stopped using, so stay tuned.
As well, I’m thinking about illustrating posts myself, the way waitbutwhy does it. What do you think?
Finally, feel free to give me a shout on twitter!

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Why Don’t People Use Strong Passwords?

January 12, 2017

Chances are that you use lots of online services, each one asking you to create new passwords. If you’re like most people, you’re only going to have 1 or 2 that you remember. After all, there are a lot of different sites to log into! Why bother making a new one every time?

Unfortunately, it’s time for a bit of a reality check – passwords are the bottom line of security. No matter how secure a service is, an attacker can easily access your account if you use a bad password. This is critical to note for a number of reasons – for instance, an attacker with access to your email account can reset the passwords on services you use, locking you out. As a result, you could find yourself without access to your online banking, professional email and more.

In this post I’ll explain a common way accounts are hacked, what weak passwords look like, and what you can do.

Why this is Important

Simple software used to hack into people’s personal accounts, like their Facebook account, will launch brute-force attacks. A brute-force attack, in this context, is when an attacker systematically guesses your password until they get the right one. Many pieces of software exist to automatically check every possible combinations of letters, numbers and words until it figures your information out. The reason why so many services lock you out if you incorrectly enter your password a number of times is to prevent this type of attack! To emphasize the point, a lack of lock-out protection is how hackers were able to steal photos in the 2014 iCloud celebrity photo leaks. They scraped interviews with celebrities for key words and phrases like pet’s names and familiar streets, then used programs to guess their passwords.

Common Weak Passwords

Before guessing random combinations, good software will guess from a list of people’s most commonly-used passwords. Companies like SplashData determine that list by scraping information from some of the biggest data leaks, like the Ashley Madison Hack. Using this information, we can determine the most common passwords that people used, listed here:

  1. password
  2. 123456
  3. 12345678
  4. 1234
  5. qwerty (if you’re curious about this one, look at the first 6 keys on your keyboard)
  6. 12345
  7. dragon
  8. p*ssy (let’s assume this one is about cats…)
  9. baseball
  10. football

A full list can be seen here. If your password is on this list, please try to come up with a better one! If anyone wants to gain access to your accounts, it will likely be trivial for them. Similarly, see below for a list of the most common 4-digit PINs (for iPhones, etcetera).

Most Common Passwords

Source in image: Nick Berry of Data Genetics

Most modern phones only give you 10 guesses before starting to lock you out, but that’s enough to get into almost 25% of phones.


Keeping yourself secure is actually a relatively simple process. First of all, see how secure your average password is with an online tool, like Then, consider implementing some of the following pieces of advice:

  • Don’t re-use passwords. One great password is useless if someone knows it!
  • Consider activating two-factor authentication (2FA) wherever possible. 2FA will occasionally use an emailed code or text message to confirm you are who you say you are.
  • Try a password manager like 1Password. Password managers allow you to make complex passwords on the websites you use, while only having to remember one simple password yourself.
  • Don’t needlessly share your password!

Well, that primer was a little longer than I was expecting to write. I hope you found it a useful starting point for protecting yourself!

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Writing Good Technical Documentation

January 7, 2017

The time arrived to write technical documentation for our product, X Life. Our goal was to achieve the thoroughness of a wiki and the fun of Valve’s Handbook for New Employees.

We used Google docs so we could work together at the same time, which proved to be a fun exercise!

Building Good Documentation

Most of what worked in our documentation came from discussing it beforehand. The developers split up and brainstormed what they would want to see if they were reading new the technical specs. When we came together to share our lists, we were able to organize a rough framework very easily. We start a few notes for new developers, then an overview of the tech stack and details about the repository. Next is an in-depth look at some code, and finally, an FAQ section. This structure created a nice document that flows naturally.

A trick that helped readability was gradually adding code examples instead of overwhelming with them at the beginning.

Making it Readable

Our audience is mostly people familiar with the site who want a place for quick reference. With that in mind, we were able to cut out dry verbiage and keep helpful tips for new team members. Interestingly, following writing guidelines that help optimize blog posts for search engines helped keep to keep our writing sharp.

One of the most helpful tricks was to say exactly 1 or 2 things about each topic. This ensured that everything was explained, but brevity was enforced!

The End Result

What started as 5 pages of topics quickly became 25 pages of background and dependancy information, but we weren’t done. After 2 days of writing technical documentation, we ended up at 40 pages! Luckily, every section is brief and easy to reference, making the document quite readable. Many sites suggest using software to generate documentation. That might work for logging the usage of individual functions inside the code, which would be great for large companies. However, we’ve been recording function usage since the beginning, and decided that auto-documentation software wasn’t worth the money.

I hope that you find our experience writing documentation useful for yourself. Let us know in the comments if you have any of your own tips or tricks!

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